When my parents weren’t tanked, we had plenty of fun times growing up in Marin County back in the day. We drove up to the Russian River and canoed around, carried kites and hiked straight up from the house up into our hills, pulling apart rusty barbwire fences and squeezing in between, cutting through pastures on the way. My father loved hiking, and we made up funny songs as we walked, poems and skits for each other, gut busting laughs. It almost seemed to make up for unpredictable drunk ugly.
My mom knit us long and stretchy Christmas stockings, perfect for oranges and tons of candy. She was really good with her hands, and thought nothing about taking a chainsaw to some livingroom drywall or putting in a new window, Sunday afternoon remodelling.
My dad wrote and produced radio commercials in our livingroom on the weekends. My mom usually read the woman’s voice copy, and I was the kid’s voice. He’d let me choose special effects, like squeezing a box of corn starch to sound like snow, or tinkle ice in a glass. My father’s white Wollensak portable tape recorder was his main business tool, and he used it every day. He let me use it. I loved that Wollensack.
I read books, and bought the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prarie series with my birthday money. I came home from the Mill Valley book store loaded with seven hard back books covered in colorful jackets. My favorite illustrator, Garth Williams, drew heartfelt images of Laura and her family, and I stared long and hard at one sketch of Laura and her sister Mary playing with her father, acting like a growling bear. That drawing seemed so real to me, and I wanted to be Laura and live with her sisters in a sod hut like olden times.
My mom ’s family had owned a hardware store business in Washington D.C. and her dad taught her how to work with tools—drills, wire cutters, pliers. Despite beer and gin episodes, my mom was ‘on deck’ most of the time, and managed real property, bought other Bel Aire homes, roofed and painted them herself during her land baroness years of the 1960’s and 70’s.
My mother caulked grout, replaced floor and bathroom tile, changed electrical fixtures. Sometimes my Dad and I helped her. He could paint and I was learning. My father didn’t act comfortable around tools besides a shovel, but when he was sober, he knew how to dig fenceposts and put in a sprinkler system that mostly worked.
My dad sat agonized on the kitchen floor, looking in our messy junk drawer for a screwdriver, a washer. He was proud ’to have never been under the hood of his Rambler to check the oil level.” My dad wrote good songs with beautiful lyrics, but couldn’t fix a stopped drain to save his life. Sober or drunk, though, my daddy sang to me and taught me everything he knew and loved about music. I loved to listen to him sing.